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Georgetown U. students file complaint to nullify slavery reparations voting results

Certification of results halted amid ethics, campaign allegations   

Two Georgetown University students on Sunday filed a complaint with the student-led Constitutional Council to nullify the results of the recently approved referendum to tax students for a reparations fund to benefit descendants of slaves sold by the university in the 1830s.

That 10-page complaint was unanimously accepted by the three-member Constitutional Council on Sunday afternoon, prompting a delay in the certification of the slavery reparations referendum results at a student government meeting held later in the day.

“Following a review of all charges, the Constitutional Council determined to hear the case. Accordingly, the Constitutional Council issued an injunction to the members of the GUSA Senate preventing them from confirming the referendum results due to the now pending case,” according to a news release the council issued late Sunday night.

“[T]he Constitutional Council recognizes that this case may cause great frustration since it seems to undercut the historic results of the GU272 Referendum,” the release added.

“In spite of this perception, the Constitutional Council remains fully dedicated to supporting democracy within the Georgetown University Student Association. Furthermore, the Constitutional Council is sworn to protect the rights afforded to every Georgetown student by the GUSA Constitution, students who voted yes in the referendum, students who voted no, and those who did not vote at all. To conclude, you have our firm commitment that this case will be adjudicated fairly, holistically, and expeditiously.”

A hearing on the complaint is set to take place Wednesday.

The two students who filed the complaint, sophomores Rowan Saydlowski and Chris Castaldi-Moller, allege three main violations.

One, that the chair of the student government’s ethics and oversight committee, who was tasked by the Election Commission to field complaints of misconduct, was a co-sponsor of the legislation that brought the issue to a vote, which they say is a conflict of interest.

In an interview Sunday night, Saydlowski said he is aware of at least two campaign violation complaints: one, that students in support of the measure campaigned door-to-door in the dorms and slipped fliers under dorm doors, a violation of campaign policies. What’s more, fliers arguing against the measure were torn down.

He said he is unsure if the student leader tasked with addressing these complaints took action, but “he should have recused himself if you are overseeing the election you have a stake in.”

Another concern alleged in the complaint is that the Election Commission “failed to properly perform its duties.”

“[T]he Election Commission illegally changed the voting threshold for success four days before the election … did not enforce sanctions for those on the pro-referendum side who violated election rules … failed to properly publicize the process for making complaints about election violations and presented a voter guide that inaccurately and incompletely described the content of the referendum to voters,” the two students state in a news release.

Finally, the complaint alleges the student government did not even have the authority to put forth the referendum in the first place, that referendums that do not propose amendments to the Georgetown University Student Association constitution are not legitimate under its own constitution and bylaws.

Whether this is an accurate interpretation is now up for the Constitutional Council to decide. There have been at least two student referendums in the past that were not amendments to the constitution, Saydlowski said. As to why this issue has not been addressed sooner, he said he’s disappointed it hasn’t been.

“My friend and I did a very close read of just about every word of the constitutional bylaws,” he said, adding nowhere in the document does it explicitly state the student government can initiate referendums that do not apply to constitutional amendments.

To underscore his point, Saydlowski pointed to an Election Commission tweet from April 7, four days before the election, that stated “seeing as this is not a constitutional amendment referendum, this referendum would only need to have a simple majority to pass.”

“Which is nowhere in the constitution or the bylaws,” Saydlowski said. “They just invented this 51 percent threshold. We’re saying that’s blatantly illegal.”

Of the 3,845 students who voted in the April 11 election, 2,541 students — or 66.08 percent — voted to approve the measure.

Saydlowski said in terms of the structure of the student government, the Constitutional Council is akin to the U.S. Supreme Court and has jurisdiction in adjudicating such matters. He said he was at Sunday’s student government meeting when the council’s decision to weigh in on the matter was discussed.

“There was certainly opposition from certain senators,” he said. “One called it disrespectful, others senators started to debate the Constitutional Council.”

Saydlowski, the vice president of the Georgetown College Republicans, said he’s not concerned about backlash from peers, many of whom have been vocal and highly emotional about supporting the measure. Indeed, The College Fix reported the day after the election that some students had expressed fear in speaking out against the measure.

“I have trained myself over the years to not be afraid to express my opinions,” he said. “I have a mentality of, ‘If I don’t do it, who else will?’ We want to achieve the goal of maintaining the legitimacy of elections.”

He said no professor or administrator has discussed or worked with him to craft the complaint.

The reparations measure, put forth by Georgetown University Student Association senators in coordination with the GU272 Movement, could become the first slavery reparations policy in America.

The measure is expected to be considered by the Board of Directors, which will likely have the ultimate authority on whether the fee will be officially implemented.

According to the measure, the semesterly fee would begin to be collected in the fall of 2020 and start at $27.20 per student in honor of the 272 people sold by Georgetown.

MORE: Georgetown students may pay reparations for slavery with new student fee

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.